Academics, Arts & Humanities, Global

Politics, History and the Beautiful Game


How a Duke scholar uses soccer as a prism to teach about politics, history and culture


By Eric Ferreri

The Romance Studies class Laurent Dubois is teaching this semester ranges broadly in subject matter—from the spread of imperialism to gender inequity to soccer’s offside rule.


Wait: What?

A historian, Dubois has for the last decade used global soccer as a prism through which to teach his popular class on world history, politics and culture. Called “Soccer Politics,” the class covers a huge footprint, from the reach of the British empire to the collision of culture and economics in South America, to the unusual way Dutch soccer strategy is inspired by urban design.


And a class that was first offered solely in English is now taught in four languages at the same time. All students attend a weekly lecture in English and also separate into four smaller discussion groups offered in English, Italian, French and Spanish. Students choose the language they prefer; Dubois leads the English section and native speaker graduate students lead the foreign language sections. While there are common themes, each language section has its own assigned readings in that language. And all students are expected to contribute public posts—again, in their chosen language—to a class blog.

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Laurent Dubois teaches Soccer Politcs at Duke

The class is one example of Duke’s Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum initiative, which aims to integrate foreign language instruction into myriad topics where it’s a good fit. In prior years the class has offered sections in German and Portuguese; in the future, Dubois says he’d like to work with other departments to offer it in other languages, such as Chinese and Arabic. 


Here, Dubois, who has appointments in the departments of history and Romance Studies, discusses the class, the use of soccer as a teaching tool and what has surprised him about his students.


Soccer exists all over the world. It’s pretty much in every society. I describe it as the most universal form of culture we have. So that said, it’s played in different ways and it means different things in different cultures. So you follow this one game around, but in different contexts you discover all these different aspects of it. It just allows me to teach a course that’s really a course in world history and the contemporary world, where we touch on Africa, Latin America, Asia, the United States, on all types of topics, politics, immigration, and so forth that kind of enliven the discussion, but with a thread that keeps it consistent and allows the students to think carefully about how soccer helps them explain and understand the world.


It’s really rigorous. I ask a lot of these students. There’s a lot of reading—historical monographs, works of anthropological theory, journalism—as well as a range of documentary films that they watch and comment on. In both the lectures and sections the students have to participate actively in responding to and interpreting these works.


I always learn a huge amount from the students as they engage with the material. They bring a wide spectrum of experiences and knowledge, some because they are already passionate fans, often of particular teams, others because they have really interesting critical perspectives about the economics, culture and ethics of the game.


What I hope to do is give them new ways of thinking about soccer, and sport generally, as a way of thinking about what it is to be human. The work in the language sections pushes students to really use and expand their use of the language. These bring together native speakers, some of whom have grown up with the game, and students who are in the midst of the language learning journey. Many of these students have studied abroad, and in that process got interested in and pulled into the soccer cultures in the places where they were living, and they bring those experiences to the classroom as well.

What is Soccer Politics?

Professor Laurent Dubois explains why this course, taught in four languages, is unusual.

Students explore history, culture and politics by learning about the soccer stars of each era. This allows them to dive into the history of the time period by engaging them with soccer and allowing them to use the game as a point of reference.

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The class is organized around a lecture and sections taught in different languages. It’s a way to embody in some ways what the course is about, the regional reach and the diversity of the sport and its place in lots of different cultures. Each language has its own sphere around the game. And for them, it’s a really great way to practice their language skills. Talking about soccer is, in a sense, easy. There’s a lot of media out there about it, it’s easy to watch videos about it, to read blogs. They’re exposed to a lot of material and I think they feel very comfortable with it. Being comfortable with a foreign language is one of the biggest challenges when you’re learning a foreign language. 





Select a section above to hear what it’s like to have a course in taught in four different languages. Make sure your volume is turned up.

Each language group reads a different set of works and in particular that allows them to read novels in the different languages. It allows them to access things the English speakers can’t access. And also to see the very different ways that in different countries people relate to the sport. 


In the broader lecture, we’re able to invite them to teach one another about what they’re learning.

Expand the reading list below to see how soccer transcends language—and what it’s like to have a syllabus in four languages.

What They're Reading


“Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer,” by David Winner 

“The Country of Football: Soccer and the Making of Modern Brazil,” by Roger Kittleson  

“African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game,” by Peter Alegi

“Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer,” by Gwendolyn Oxenham

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The translations of “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” by Eduardo Galeano are required reading in each language section.


“Soccer in Sun and Shadow”

by Eduardo Galeano 


“The Beckham Experiment: How the World’s Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America”

by Grant Wahl 


“Fever Pitch”

by Nick Hornby


“El futbol a sol y sombra”

por Eduardo Galeano 


“Papeles en el viento”

por Edouard Sacheri 


“Balon Dividido”

por Juan Villoro


“Le football, ombre et lumiere”

par Eduardo Galeano 


“8 Juillet 1998”

par Lilian Thuram 


“Le ventre de L’Atlantique”

par Fatou Diome


“Splendori e miserie del calcio”

di Eduardo Galeano 


“Vincere o morire: gli assi del calico in camicia nera: 1926-1938”

di Enrico Brizzi 


“Epopea ultra”

di Giuseppe Manfridi


I really like to emphasize to them that women’s soccer is as old as soccer, period. That goes against the grain of how we tend to think about it today. It’s not a new thing. It was just stopped and prevented from growing, especially in the 1920s in England. I think that changes how students think of women’s soccer in the world. I think those historical dimensions are not something they’re going to be familiar with and it kind of allows them to challenge and contest certain ideas that are commonplace but wrong. That’s a particularly important one because it does affect our ability to advocate for women’s soccer in the present.



Professor Dubois engages with students in the English language section as well as the large lecture.


One thing I’ve learned from teaching over the past couple years is how vastly important the FIFA video game is in terms of the ways people relate to soccer. I asked the students to watch a game every weekend or play a game. I tell them they can play a video game, occasionally. But the amount of time spent playing these video games—and it’s very intense because they choose a player and they become that player, and the player is based on the actual player. They’ve brought them into a studio and see how they move. So there’s this really interesting relationship which is like the fandom that’s always existed where people sort of see themselves in athletes they like, but it takes on this virtual dimension.


This is just one part of the shifting ways in which fans all over the world are relating to soccer through different formats, not just by seeing games in the stadium and watching on television but also through social media, in which gifs and memes around soccer are shared all the time, as well as a range of conversation platforms. Each semester, I have a “jersey and scarf” day where students bring in their soccer paraphernalia, and its really amazing to see all the ways they’ve engaged with the sport. Sometimes its something they grew up with, other times something they got into on a study abroad program, and in some cases the class itself helps them develop a passion for engaging with the game. 

The Student Perspective

Many students in this course hope to use the game they love to gain a meaningful perspective on the world and its history.

En Español

El análisis de la historia mundial del fútbol se transforma en una plataforma para aprender sobre idiomas, cultura y política mundial para Luisa Stalman, estudiante del curso “Soccer politics” de la Universidad de Duke.

In Spanish: The global history of soccer becomes a venue to learn about languages, culture and world politics for Luisa Stalman, student at the “Soccer politics” class from Duke University. Watch the Interview



I definitely don’t shy away from the ugliness and corruption of soccer. Soccer isn’t just one thing. It’s something people all these cultural and social things into it. Some are really interested in the industrial and economic side of it. Others are interested in the political and legal dimensions. I had this amazing student last time who went through the whole indictment against FIFA and really looked into it and laid it out in an interesting way.


They certainly have a sense of cynicism about the institutions and the leagues and the money involved. We’re always talking about the contradictions between this sport that’s about joy and play and conviviality, and then all the ugliness and corruption that goes hand in hand. In a way it’s a microcosm of larger questions in society.


There’s a whole intellectual dimension to the offside rule that players have to understand, that many people don’t really understand. Soccer is about moving with your body, but it’s enormously about thinking as well. The best players are able to do what they do partly because of their intelligence in understanding that space.


We read a book called Brilliant Orange, by David Winner, which explains how Dutch football transformed the way the soccer pitch was conceived of during the 1970s, in relation to other developments in intellectual and cultural life. The goal here was not just to read and talk about this intellectual side of the game, but practice it with one another directly.


So I devised an activity where we went out onto the quad. I asked for volunteers, three in offense, three in defense, and the offensive team just had to try and move down the field while the defense tried to catch them offside. Seemingly simple, but actually quite an intricate dance. I asked the other students to be referees, and raise their arms up if they saw an offside call. So they learned how hard it is to make this call, and began to argue with each other about what the right call was.


It was really fun to be able to play the game and think about it together, there on the quad, as part of the learning process.

Experience the Offside Clinic

Students get out of the classroom to learn soccer’s confusing offside rule.

Students strategize and execute their strategies in a special Offside Clinic that happens one day each semester out on the quad during class.

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When I started the course in 2009, I created a blog called Soccer Politics so students could share work both with each other and with interested readers beyond the university. Since then, the blog has become a huge archive of student projects and blog comments, and now we get significant daily traffic. Each semester we focus on creating a “Tournament Guide” to international tournaments that are happening in the summer. Some student projects have been read by tens of thousands of people, and they get cited in journalistic articles and other blogs regularly. One particularly popular one is a carefully researched presentation on how FIFA picks referees for tournaments—something people always end up wondering about when they are yelling at one of them during a game!

Student Blog

Track the class’ progress through the semester and get insights into the cultural and political role of soccer worldwide—in four languages.

During the 2015 Women’s World Cup I noticed that student projects—notably those in the language sections—were getting cited a lot by journalists both in the U.S. and other countries, because the blog provided material, notably on particular women’s teams from around the world, that you couldn’t really find anywhere else. The blog is also used as a resource in other classes on soccer around the country.  In 2014, the Brazilian Consulate in Miami organized an exhibit around soccer in Brazil and used a student project they found on the blog as the basis for a part of the exhibit.

2015 Women’s World Cup Guide

The class’ guide to the 2015 Women’s World became the go-to reference for media outlets worldwide during the event.

Andrew Wenger, who now plays in the MLS and took the course in its first semester, wrote a series of posts when he began his professional career in Montreal, and got a huge response from local fans who were excited to see him engage with the history of soccer in the city. Now there’s so much material on there—literally thousands of pages and blog posts—that people searching for information on soccer online will often end up on the blog. And I think the seriousness of what they find there—the fact that it is based on deep research, that the projects are well thought-out and offer citations and bibliographies—makes it an important resource for a range of readers.


Having built this space up as a public forum about soccer adds a great dimension to the course. I like that the students know that they are not just writing for me, but for a broader public. It raises the bar in a way, because people do read and respond and sometimes correct them if they get things wrong. I think it also just is more interesting for them to feel like the research they do can contribute to the broader understanding and discussion of the game. I offer the option to students of writing more traditional papers rather than doing the blog, but I’ve never had a student take me up on that.

Story by Eric Ferreri

Videos by Julie Schoonmaker

Photos by Megan Mendenhall and Jonathan Lee

Design by Sam Huntley

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Historian Laurent Dubois’s recent book: “The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer” has been featured in the New York Times in a story about summer reading titled “73 Books to Read While the Sun is Out and the Days are Long.”